The 20-year-old Chinese player overturned the former champion’s 7-5 lead to win 10-8, becoming only the second player from China to win the tournament (after the 2011 winner Ding Junhui), and the youngest Masters champion since Ronnie O’Sullivan in 1995.
Yan’s path to the final was a challenging one – he had been behind in every match, and overcome those deficits to defeat Neil Robertson, Stephen Maguire and last year’s champion Stuart Bingham, winning each match 6-5. It was an impressive final frame, and a steely break of 74 against Bingham, which secured his place in the final.
It initially appeared that he would face a similar challenge against Higgins, even though the Scot was playing below his best. There was impressive match play on display, and some tense safety battles, but neither player looked ready to steamroll the other. Yan had a chance to finish the first session at 4-4, but he broke down in the balls in the eighth frame and missed a difficult green in frustration. Higgins went into the second session 5-3 up, and it appeared that Yan’s long potting was letting him down when he needed it most.
The ninth frame was where things really started to turn in Yan’s favour. Higgins made a break of 67 and missed the match ball – with just 67 left on the table, Yan made an impressive clearance and then claimed victory with a re-spotted black. The next frame, Higgins missed an easy yellow on its spot, and Yan punished him for it, putting the two players level.
Higgins missed a frame-winning blue on the next frame to gift the win to Yan
Higgins worked hard for back-to-back breaks of 74 and 116 to find another two-frame advantage, but a remarkably poor shot in the next frame left him at Yan’s mercy. Trying to play safe on a black, he potted the white, and a failed double left Yan the black to take the frame. He pulled level once again, then Higgins missed a frame-winning blue on the next frame to gift the win to Yan.
Momentum was clearly with the Chinese player, and he quietly and assuredly took the final two frames necessary to win as Higgins could only sit in his chair, stewing over some of his unforced errors. Yan has proven his ability to perform under pressure throughout this tournament, and he demonstrated it again when it counted most. Higgins attempted to hold off the victory by claiming three unlikely snookers, but at that stage of the match, it was clear who the victor would be.
Yan said: “I am very excited. I have imagined how I would celebrate but I am very calm, even though in the last few frames I was not playing very well. But I did not give up.”
After his defeat, Higgins said of Yan: “He was fantastic – he’s got such an incredible all-round game. I had my chances and I’m sick because I should have gone 6-3 in front and I was in control to go 8-5 in front. I’m gutted, but every credit to him – it is a brilliant achievement winning it at such a young age.
“I have played him the last few years. He has not much to learn in the tactical department and he is scoring as well now. He is about the same age as my boy. He could be a world champion without a shadow of a doubt, so China is very lucky to have Yan.”
It was an unbelievable night for Yan Bingtao, who entered the tournament with 50-1 odds and went away with the trophy. It was his first time in this event, and he faced some major players on his path to the final – to have performed so well, and to have held his nerve throughout, was phenomenal. He’ll go home with a cheque for £250,000 and his name on the Paul Hunter trophy – every snooker player wants to win at least one of the Triple Crown events, and Yan has done so very early in his career.
Yan’s win is about more than just himself, however – there will be a lot of people watching him in China, and willing him on for the World Championship after his performance here. Thus far, no Chinese players has ever been world champion, although flag bearer Ding Junhui did make it to the final in 2016. Higgins has predicted world championship success for Yan, and Ronnie O’Sullivan said after the final that Yan should win “at least” one or two world titles.
If you’re a snooker fan, you’ll want to remember the name Yan Bingtao – he’s likely to get better, and now he’s proven that he can perform under pressure on one of the biggest stages in the snooker world, I’d expect to see him adding some ore titles to his collection very soon.